By: Will Burchfield
It’s not necessarily hyperbole to say the Red Wings have salvaged their season in the past 10 days.
Sure, it’s only November and the East looks wide open, but Detroit was very much in danger of falling out of the race before it really began. Nov. 1 has become a well-known benchmark in the salary-cap era — teams four points out of a playoff spot on that date are all but dead — and the Wings, mired in a six-game losing steak in late October, were headed in the wrong direction.
They’ve since won four of five and sit comfortably in the playoff picture approaching the quarter-point of the season. So, what’s brought the Wings back from the edge of the cliff?
It starts with something Jeff Blashill stressed entering the season: “Our goaltenders have to be elite.” Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek have met that standard of late — and really for much of the year — with Howard leading the way.
In Detroit’s last four wins, Howard (three games) and Mrazek (one) have combined for a .951 save percentage. Howard was especially good in the skid-snapping win over the Panthers on Oct. 28, kicking out 44 of 46 shots, while Mrazek was terrific in his first start in over two weeks on Sunday, turning in a 36-save shutout against the Oilers.
Detroit’s recent netminding has been a continuation of a season-long trend and a sharp departure from last year’s norm. After finishing the 2016-17 campaign with a team save percentage of .903, 25th in the NHL, the Wings check in at .933 thus far, good for seventh overall. That jump can be attributed to a healthy Howard, a better start by Mrazek and — let’s face it — no need for Jared Coreau.
Among goalies with at least 10 starts, Howard, who missed most of last season with a groin injury, ranks seventh with a .927 save percentage. With each game, he’s proving his bounce-back performance in 2016-17 wasn’t a fluke (and vindicating Ken Holland’s decision to protect him over Mrazek in the expansion draft.) Howard has reclaimed the crease in Detroit, and the Wings are better for it.
The team is also playing a better game in front of him. Its most significant strides have been made at five-on-five, but its recent run has been propelled by its play in undermanned situations. Detroit’s penalty kill has succeeded at a 91.7 percent clip (11/12) in its last four wins.
Again, that’s been a strongpoint for much of this season and an improvement from last. The Wings’ penalty kill ranks seventh in the NHL at 83.6 percent; last year it ranked 16th at 80.8 percent. In a league where the difference between winning and losing is often razor thin, marginal gains go a long way — especially on special teams.
Lastly, and this can be a harder trait to quantify, the Red Wings have shown a resiliency of late. When the ice has tilted in the opposition’s favor, they’ve dug in and tilted it back. This is something they were unable to do last season, when they chased the puck for long stretches of play in almost every game.
Versus the Panthers, the Wings went down 2-1 early in the second. Less than three minutes later, they tied the game. Against the Coyotes, they saw a 2-0 lead cut in half midway through the second. Less than two minutes later, they restored it.
But their most impressive response came Monday night in Vancouver in the second game of a back-to-back. After blowing a two-goal lead in the third period, the Wings found their bearings and doubled up the Canucks in shot attempts (12-6) the rest of the way. Tomas Tatar eventually netted the game-winner with just over a minute remaining.
It’s impossible in today’s NHL to maintain a competitive edge for 60 minutes. It’s how a team handles a game’s inevitable momentum swings that often decides its fate, and the Wings have recently answered the bell. That speaks to their mettle as much as their skill.
Let this be clear: the Red Wings still have plenty to prove. Their last four wins, though impressive and extremely important, came against teams with a combined record of 17-32-7. In fact, they own just one victory over a winning team this season, that being the Golden Knights. Does anyone think the Golden Knights will be a winning team come April?
Still, Detroit has come alive in the past week and a half, excelling in three areas in which it struggled a year ago. Whether this can be sustained remains to be seen, but give the Wings credit for finding their pulse.